BY ROBERT KNIGHT
ROCKLAND COUNTY TIMES
Orangetown revealed Tuesday that it has apparently attracted one of America’s largest data centers to locate in Orangeburg, bringing a huge tax ratable to the town while also facilitating the demolition of more than 50 abandoned buildings at the town-owned former Rockland Psychiatric Center campus.
It’s a win-win-win situation for Orangetown, town officials predicted at a board workshop meeting at Town Hall, where a preliminary presentation on the project by its planners and attorney met with cautious but enthusiastic optimism.
If the proposal is eventually approved, it will rid Orangetown of its decade-long burden of how to re-develop more than 60 acres of the RPC campus it owns, which contain seriously contaminated buildings and land, pay off the remaining town debt for its purchase of the property and add millions to the town’s general fund for much needed projects.
The property will be home to a huge electronic data center worth millions in tax revenues to the cash-strapped town and the Pearl River School District
Financial details of the deal were scarce at Tuesday night’s meeting, as was the identity of the mysterious purchaser.
New City attorney Brian Quinn said he represents the unnamed developer, describing the company as “a household name that everyone would immediately recognize.” Town Board members were equally mum on identifying the prospective purchaser until the deal is closer to fruition, and a contract is ready to be signed.
The only hint as to the identity was that it might be a “huge international bank” with a prominent presence in Rockland County.
Quinn said the client was drawn to Orangetown because the town already hosts three other large computer data centers constructed nearby in the past five years, all within a mile or two of the RPC site, including Bloomberg and Verizon.
Because Orange and Rockland Utilities has already installed huge capacity overhead and underground power lines to supply those centers, ample power exists at the site to provide this new center as well, along with possible future expansions, Quinn observed.
And Quinn is no stranger to Orangetown and the RPC campus either, he noted. He was also the attorney last year for the New York City Football Club, part of an international soccer franchise based in Manchester, England, which purchased a large vacant parcel at RPC that it is now developing as the headquarters for its New York City-based franchise.
Appearing with Quinn was Rob Foley, the outside engineer on the project who works for Drewberry Engineers.
According to Foley, the unnamed client wants to purchase about 61 acres of land at RPC, which includes the infamous “core” section of the abandoned psychiatric hospital campus and all of its abandoned, derelict and deteriorating buildings.
That parcel contains more than 30 such empty buildings, all constructed of steel and concrete in the 1930’s, and each being two or three stories in height.
When the facility (originally called Rockland State Hospital but later renamed the Rockland Psychiatric Center in the 1960s) was in full operation in the 1950s. it housed nearly 10,000 patients and another 10,000 employees, all of who were required to reside on campus in provided housing. At the time this mini city, situated on more than 1,000 acres of land, was the largest hamlet within all of Orangetown and all of Rockland County.
Starting in the ‘60’s, however, and reaching a fever pitch after Geraldo Rivera’s “Willowbrook” expose series on television, New York State began downsizing its massive psychiatric hospitals in favor of smaller group homes and home care that was both more humane and more affordable.
Most of the buildings at RPC were closed and the vacant land was sold to whoever would buy it, at bargain prices. Developers bought hundreds of acres and built modern homes on half-acre lots, while others created industrial parks on the southern end of the campus, all the way to the New Jersey border.
Orangetown itself bought about 350 acres of the campus, using some to create town parks such as the Orangetown Soccer Complex on Old Orangeburg Rd., and promoting the redevelopment by selling 15 acres of land that was recently re-sold to New York’s professional soccer team to build a training facility. A housing project was approved for the central part of the campus but fell through due to economic recession in 2008.
The “problem,” as the town quickly learned, is that the cost of redeveloping the RPC acreage with the abandoned buildings far exceeded the value of the land itself. That made the land undesirable to developers, no matter how much the town tried to sweeten the deal by offering zone changes, tax abatements and all sorts of other incentives.
The town’s predicament is exactly what their client is seeking, Foley and Quinn told the Town Board Tuesday.
The land is currently zoned R-80, meaning it can only be used to build single-family homes on one-acre individual lots.
Foley and Quinn said preliminary estimates are that it will cost their client at least $40 million to raze the existing 30-40 buildings while at the same time abating the contamination of the structures, the soil beneath them and the surrounding air and ground water, all of which are contaminated with lead, asbestos, PCBs and other poisonous substances.
For a housing developer, that would mean he was investing over $1 million per home just for site remediation to meet state and federal regulations. Adding the cost of purchase, and the cost of building the homes, the developer would have to sell them for $2 million each just to break even, let alone make a profit.
Their client is willing to make that investment, however, provided the sale price of the 61 acres is “attractive.”
To make the deal happen, they said Orangetown would also have to change the zoning on the land from the present R-80 to RPC-OP, a special designation for RPC property allowing it to only be used to create an office park, such as a data center.
The benefits would be tremendous however, they explained.
The town would finally get rid of the troublesome “core” section of the campus, which it has wrestled with for more than a decade. The town would get whatever sales price is agreed to, the land would be put back on the tax rolls immediately, the troublesome buildings would be demolished and removed, contamination would be eliminated and remediated, a valuable new data center would be created leading to additional tax revenues, and a new source of employment for high level electronic technicians would be created.
Every aspect of the project would benefit Orangetown, Quinn and Foley claimed, while there would be no drawbacks.
In describing the data center, the two men said the initial building would be about 260,00 square feet, and about 50 feet high, similar in size to a large warehouse, just without the trucks. The site is large enough for future expansion with more data centers if this becomes desirable in the future, with a total theoretical build-out of about 520,000 square feet.
The building would contain nothing but computer storage machines and a few offices, totaling about 70 employees in all, who would work in shifts on a 24/7 basis, making sure everything was working properly. Parking would be for about 99 cars, covering all employees, guests and possible visitors.
The site is approximately 61 acres in size, they said, and is bounded to the north by Convent Road, to the south by Oak Street, to the east by First Avenue and to the west by Third Avenue. It lies between the town-owned Broadacres Golf Club to the east and the firehouse, laundry, power plant and facilities management buildings to the west.
Included on the site are the original 1933 Rockland Children’s Psychiatric Center, later a day care center; the original auditorium, cafeteria and bowling alley; the bus station and dozens of employee and patient dormitories, cafeterias, kitchens, day rooms, classrooms and other facilities.
Efforts to preserve the main auditorium, one of the largest in Rockland County, and the original RCPC building, which contains huge 1933-era WPA murals painted on the walls, have met with varied interest over the years, but no solutions on how to preserve them, or even why.
Town Board members Tuesday appeared to be unanimously in favor of the data center conversion for RPC, and decided informally to go ahead with a public hearing at next Tuesday’s meeting on re-zoning the property from RPC R-80 TO RPC-OP. At the same meeting they will also vote to hire Valuation Plus to assess the 61-acre site for the town, at a cost of $5,500. Based on that appraisal, the town and the developer can begin negotiating an eventual sale price.
Quinn and Foley said that would be sufficient for their client to begin making serious plans for their purchase and re-development of the site to present to the town for formal approval.
The plans will first go to the town Planning Board, which will review them and refer them out to other departments and agencies as they determine appropriate.
At the same time the developers and the town will start negotiations on the sales price of the 61-acre site. Both sides indicated Tuesday that they have figures in mind but didn’t want to discuss them publicly for fear of tipping their hand.
To start the process, the board said it would vote Tuesday to schedule a public hearing on the zone change request for its meeting of March 21 at 8 p.m. at the Town Hall in Orangeburg.
The Town Board itself will act as the lead agency for State Environmental Quality Review Act purposes (SEQRA), and the plans will be referred to at least the town and county planning boards, county highway department, state departments of mental health and transportation, and the Rockland County Drainage Agency, among others.
Members of the public will be allowed to speak to the board about the project and the zone change next Tuesday, prior to the vote, and again at the public hearing on March 21.